By Miriam Raftery
May 13, 2012 (San Diego)—San Diego’s Planning Commission voted unanimously to have staff evaluate health impacts of wind turbines on people and wildlife. Commissioners balked at approving a proposed county wind ordinance or changes to the Boulevard community plan that could make it easier to gain approval of large-scale wind projects—taking the sails out of the wind industry.
“I am not willing to put this whole community in danger or change that community plan. I would like to bring this whole consideration to a grinding halt right now,” declared Commissioner Peder Norby after hearing evidence of health hazards that turbines pose to people and wildlife. Norby proposed that Commissioners demand that the Environmental Impact Report be reopened to evaluate solar as an alternative to wind energy.
By a unanimous vote (with Commission Adam Day absent), the Commission asked staff to come back on Friday, May 19 with details on the ramifications of reopening the EIR. They also ordered staff, which previously evaluated only “annoyance” aspects of wind power, to examine the health impacts posed by wind turbines to people and animals. Planners also showed interest in small scale turbines for individual property owners, including vertical access models.
San Diego County has 807,000 acres of designated “wind resources” including 39,000 acres suited for wind farms. Those numbers don’t include public lands or tribal lands, both of which have been seeing a flurry of wind projects proposed.
While the southeast area of the county has the most viable wind resources, parcelization of residential lots makes it problematic. Now the industry is eyeing six wind resource areas north of Interstate 8 in East County for potential wind development.
So is staff. “These areas seem more viable,” a staff member told Commissioners.
Commissioners voiced outspoken concerns after hearing testimony from health and noise experts.
Among the most compelling testimony came from Barb Ashbee, who traveled from Ontario, Canada to testify on behalf of Victims of Wind. The coalition represents hundreds of residents beset by serious health problems after industrial-scale wind turbines were erected near their homes. (View excerpt of her testimony: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hwfb7awiSeQ&feature=youtu.be ) Numerous residents have been forced to leave their homes, she said, citing symptoms that include chest pain and pressure, earaches, dizziness, nausea, heart palpitations, inability to sleep, ringing in the ears, bleeding from the nose, headaches and hyperthyroidism. Most living within 4,000 to 5,000 feet of turbines.
“Some days our house was vibrating audibly; other days you can’t hear it. Some say if felt like organis were vibrating,” Ashebee said.
People in 22 countries are calling for a halt to wind turbine construction, Ashbee said. “Ordinary families remain powerless…and continue to suffer in their homes.” Some have moved in with friends or relatives, or sleep in their basements.” She said that she and her husband both became ill, as did their pets. Ultimately they accepted a settlement from a wind company to escape the torture. “All of the symptoms disappeared when we moved,” she said.
Ashbee accused Ontario’s Minister of Health of ignoring known health problems in order to prepare a report on wind turbine health impacts that was favorable to the industry. Despite over 100 families reporting health problems, Ashbee said, “She didn’t do a health study. …She didn’t speak to any of the families. She knew about them.” She added, “In 2010 she released a cherry-picked literature review concluding there were no direct causal effects…She irreparably betrayed the public trust.”
The Ontario study has been touted by the wind industry worldwide. Iberdrola Renewables last week sent the study to East County Magazine to show a purported lack of evidence of any wind-related health problems.
Today, with even more turbines built, several hundred families have health problems and 80 municipalities in Ontario are calling for a moratorium on wind projects, Ashbee told commissioners.
The proposed wind ordinance would impose an infrasound limit that industry representatives have complained would force setbacks too far, making commercial wind projects not viable in San Diego County. Residents have contended the setbacks are still not far enough to prevent harm.
A noise expert played a tape of noise levels to demonstrate that an A-weighted scale using only decibels is inadequate to measure infrasound, which is best measured using a C-weighted scale. The loud, pulsing sound—at levels allowable under the county’s proposed ordinance—made this writer’s feel ear pressure, pain and popping.
“It travels through walls like paper,” said the expert.
Planners repeatedly sought to learn how far audible noise and infrasound could carry. The answers were unsettling. “I worked on Coors Ampitheater,” he recalled. On a hill five miles away, he could hear a singer and discern the words. How far sound carries depends on humidity, temperature and other factors. “You don’t know where you’re going to hear it,” he said. Moreover, he warned that with multiple turbines and wind projects in an area, “There is potential for projects to come together and propagate the sound.”
Children can hear noise levels that adults can’t, making them particularly susceptible to the impacts of low-frequency sound.
Wildlife sensitivity to noise and infrasound levels “vary from creature to creature,” he added. “Some birds hear high frequency, some hear low frequency.”
Staff noted that there are no standards for infrasound and animals, despite the fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has published a report cautioning that some species can have communications interrupted and fail to breed as a result of sound issues.
Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning Group and a representative from the Protect Our Communities Foundation and Backcountry Against Dumps, stated that people in East County are experience health symptoms up to 4 kilometers away from wind turbines. At least 60 people on tribal lands are subjected to turbines impacting their health, she added.
“Families are told by their physicians to move,” she said, adding that symptoms are worsening over time. “These are homeless wind farm refugees.”
Tisdale urged the board to outlaw large-scale turbines and instead, “give us small scale vertical axis turbines and I’m sure we could have a place to put them.” She decried the “taking our quality of life for private companies” and called the practice “unconscionable.”
Voice trembling, the woman known as the backcountry warrior for battling numerous large-scale energy projects stated, “I’m frankly exhausted. It’s an all-out assault.”
Samuel Millham, author of the book Dirty Energy and 100 articles in peer-reviewed journals, is an epidemiologist and MD who worked for 23 years with the Washington State Health Department. He testified that after studying deaths in various occupations, he found that “people who work around electricity get cancer—leukemia, brain cancer, non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.”
He concluded that “dirty electricity is a potent carcinogen.” He found a school with a cancer cluster in children related to dirty energy, or stray voltage which can travel through the air or ground. In California, although a CPUC regulation makes it illegal, “utilities are dumping 80% of their return power into the ground,” he said. He also mentioned voltage in the ground has been going up around smart meters.
“Turbines are horrible polluters,” said Dr. Millham, who found dirty energy levels 1000 times above normal on the Manzanita Reservation near the Campo wind facility. “There’s voltage in the earth everywhere,” said Millham, who also found high stray voltage levels near wind facilities in Palm Springs.
“I wouldn’t site another wind turbine anywhere unless they learn how to make clean electricity,” he concluded.
Stray voltage can lead to hyperactivity in children, cancer and other serious health problems. Ground current has been known to electrocute entire herds of cattle or cause burns and open sores, as well as reduction of dairy cattle milk, Dr. Millham explained on Thursday evening at a premier of the film “Windfall.”
A local resident showed a video to demonstrate the strobe-like flicker effects inside her home from a neighbor’s small-scale wind turbine.
While not without some problems, the small-scale turbines held more promise in the eyes of planning commissioners than the increasingly large industrial turbines, some 450 feet tall or more with wingspans the size of jetliners.
Steven Juarez with U.S. Fish and Game noted that wind areas also tend to be avian areas, where birds congregate. Other wildlife experts raised concerns over species such as golden eagles, bats and bighorn sheep if turbines are built in East County.
One company with a lot riding on the commission’s decisions is Iberdrola Renewables, which received approval from the Bureau of Land Management for its Tule Wind project in McCain Valley. But the company still needs County approval for five turbines as well as roadway access, water and other issues.
An Iberdrola Renewables representative and a CH2M Hill expert brought by Iberdrola sought unsuccessfully to persuade commissioners that “low frequency noise at wind projects is not an issue.” One insisted that blade “swish” is not low frequency; the other claimed that “wind turbines are not impulsive noises.”
An Enel Green Power representative expressed willingness to work together to try and resolve differences.” She said the ordinance would create “uncertainties” and insisted that a 1,000 to 1,500 setback from homes would be adequate. Others disagreed, citing harm to residents living several times that distance away from the turbines.
Mark Ostrander of Jacumba said he installed a 30-foot-high 1.2 kilowatt vertical axis turbines for $7,000. “It works in wind in any direction,” he said, adding that he has not had any health issues nor any bird kills. With wind alone, he produced about half of his own power; he has since added solar photovoltaics and is now producing more power than he uses. One planner asked if vertical axis turbines could be required in some circumstances.
“Distributed need is far better than transmission needs,” he said.
EDM editor Miriam Raftery voiced concern that there is anecdotal evidence that some livestock has experienced higher rates of miscarriages, stillbirths and birth defects than normal. “Are these safe for pregnant women? We don’t know,” she concluded, also suggesting that the board consider a moratorium on wind projects.
El Cajon builder John Gibson with Hamman Construction said the wind projects would create jobs. He suggested that 93,000 should be given “endangered species” status.
Tisdale late noted that Gibson failed to disclose his “vested interest” in Tule Wind, Sunrise Powerlink and more.
Commissioners engaged in a vigorous discussion. Commissioner Michael Beck asked about bird and bat kills.
Staff indicated no studies have been done on residential-scale turbines, but added that finding such evidence on private property could be problematic.
Commissioner Bryan Woods asked, “Are we going to look into medical issues and even though it opens a Pandora’s box, should we?” He added “You’d hate to craft this thing and then have people get sick….If you ignore it you are negligent, and I don’t want to be negligent.”
Commissioner Norby said he used to live in Denmark, where he had a home powered by offshore wind, while in Carlsbad his home has been powered entirely by solar. “Here we have a 100% capacity for solar,” he said, adding that he found the EIR’s narrow scoping to include only wind “troubling.”
Commissioner John Reiss said that some who testified were “not very credible” while others were compelling. He voiced support for setbacks of 1500 or more, but stopped short of sending the matter back to Supervisors without taking action to move forward on a wind ordinance.
Norby agreed that ultimately the decision will lie with Supervisors. But he concluded, “It’s premature to unleash this right now. He called for inclusion of solar in the EIR.
Beck agreed. Then a vote was taken. As the results were read aloud, cheers erupted among residents who were present—while the wind industry representatives looked decidedly deflated at the decision.